What happens when you ask your child about your day? As I walk home with my daughter from Kindergarten I’ll often ask her what she did, and sometimes she’ll simply reply with ‘I forgot,’ or ‘secrets’. I know from talking to many other parents that I’m not alone in this!
The last five months of 2016 were challenging ones as my sister was diagnosed with leuakaemia. I was often distracted and upset, and it wasn’t always possible to give my daughter the full-attention she needed. After donating stem cells to my sister I decided I need to focus on connecting more with my daughter.
I committed to playing with her for one hour per day, doing the things she loved, mainly roleplaying hospitals and restaurants. Then one morning we were walking to Kindergarten and she started telling me about how her Kindergarten teacher set an egg timer, to give all the children 4 minutes to put on their winter clothes before the end of Kindergarten. Anyone who managed within the time limit would get a marble as a prize.
Then a few days later, when we were in the middle of playing with her cuddly toys she started talking to them about how if they were good they would get a marble.
I began to wonder if my daughter was returning again and again to the topic of marbles because she was trying to process what was going on. We’d never used a reward system in our house. I’d trained as a Hand in Hand Parenting instructor; an approach that takes into account the brain science of how children’s minds work, that children are always trying their best, and when they don’t meet a parent or teacher’s expectations, it’s rarely deliberate defiance, but because upset feelings are getting in the way of their thinking clearly about appropriate behaviour. Unfortunately the science shows that rewards systems just aren’t a good tactic for improving behaviour, because they don’t address the feelings behind ‘misbehaviour’.
So I decided to remind my daughter of the fact that she is good. I stopped playing for a moment and said, ''you know, all children are good all of the time, even if they don't get ready as quickly as the teacher expects, even if they don't do what the teacher says, they are still always good.''
She started crying. I realised that the reward system, had hurt her feelings; the idea that her or another child would be ’bad’ if they failed to meet the teacher’s expectations. I was glad that I could hug her and reassure her that she is good, always, even if she didn’t always meet the expectations of her teacher the whole time.
When she’d first started talking about the marbles I hadn’t thought much about it,
it was just her telling me about her day, I had assumed. But then I realised, that this was something that mattered to her. She didn’t tell me directly about her feelings about the marbles, but it was there for me to see in her play.
I had no idea how long the teacher had been using marbles as a discipline tactic. Perhaps since the beginning of Kindergarten back in August. But during those intervening months I hadn’t been fully present emotionally. It was as if with those long hours of play my daughter began to sense that I was emotionally available to listen to her again
This was such a good reminder about how to get children to open up. They rarely do it when we quiz them or put them on the spot. They open-up when we listen, when we play, when we give them time, and create a space in which they can start a converstation. Often children’s thoughts and feelings come indirectly through their play, because it’s hard to put the big things that matter into words.
This process is slower and more unpredictable than asking a question and expecting an immediate answer, but it’s one that does actually work. If you’d like to hear about your child’s day, then enter the world of play with them, and listen.